Troma // 1986 // 92 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // July 31st, 2009
Fighting, killing, maiming. Agent Orange and the torture cages were the easy part!
Lloyd Kaufman is one of my heroes. For more than thirty years he's kept independence alive in the movie industry via Troma, simultaneously creating some of the best films of the last twenty years -- Tromeo and Juliet, Terror Firmer, Poultrygeist -- while launching the careers of other filmmakers (James Gunn, Trey Parker, Matt Stone). In fact, I love Lloyd so much that I'm not a fan of any Troma release that doesn't have him in the director's chair (with the lone exception of Cannibal! The Musical, Trey Parker's and Matt Stone's brilliant first film). By no means have I seen all the non-Lloyd Troma offerings, but the one's I've seen just didn't inspire the love that Citizen Toxie does. I understand why people dig flicks like Surf Nazis Must Die and Redneck Zombies, but they're just not for me. The brutal reputation of Combat Shock had me hoping that I'd find another non-Lloyd Tromasterpiece to love, but this odd little slice of New York nihilism failed to win a place in my Troma-canon.
Frankie Dunlan (Rick Giovinazzo, the director's brother) is a Vietnam veteran with a little PTSD trying to survive in the seedier part of New York during the Reagan years. Work is scarce and he's got a wife and baby to support, and his job is made all the more difficult by his baby's disfiguration due to Frankie's own exposure to Agent Orange. Unable to stay at his apartment, Frankie wanders the streets of New York looking for work, encountering its citizens while reliving his experiences in Vietnam.
Peanut butter and pasta. Chocolate salmon. Spinich and ice cream. Just because two things are great doesn't mean you should combine them. Witness Combat Shock, the bastard child of Eraserhead and Taxi Driver. Either one of these films would make an excellent influence, but together they create an unholy maelstrom of horror that takes the tension of Taxi Driver and the languid pace of Eraserhead to ridiculous extremes -- extremes which can't be sustained, leading to a slow, painful viewing experience.
Combat Shock ultimately suffers from a bait and switch. The title and marketing suggest an exploitation picture along the lines of Street Trash, promising extreme violence and action. Instead, the film is much more of a midnight/cult film in the tradition of early David Lynch or Alexander Jodorowsky. With its glacial pace, Combat Shock attempts to be more of a mood piece, allowing a slow accumulation of weird details to paint a portrait of a Vietnam vet losing his mind in the Big City. It's unfortunate that Combat Shock gives off the exploitation air because there's very little violence or action, so those looking for typical gore and violence will be disappointed. However, those looking for a slightly slower, weirder film will be more likely to enjoy Combat Shock.
Finally, a word about the ending, as spoiler free as I can make it. The box, and contemporary reviews, would have you believe that this film has one of the killer endings of all time. Eh, not so much. Although it may have been shocking and nihilistic in 1986, today the ending is pretty predictable. The effects are pretty good, but I wouldn't recommend sitting through the film just for the vaunted ending.
Combat Shock is not a complete waste of time, especially with this new DVD in Troma's Tromasterpiece Collection.
On an aesthetic level, director Buddy Giovinazzo gets major kudos for at least trying to employ artistic techniques on a low-budget film. He mentions in his commentary that he taught film, and that shows through on this disc. He's not afraid to use some more avant-guard techniques, like rapid editing or pixilition to help the audience experience Frankie's alienation. Buddy's best use of technique, however, is in the mixing department. Some of the sounds he uses may seem a bit outdated, but his layering of effects, synths, and dialogue is much more sophisticated than most low-budget films can manage. None of this saves the film, but it does make watching some of the more tedious scenes interesting.
Although I love Troma, they've been a little slow on the DVD bandwagon. While they embraced the format as heartily as they did VHS at its introduction, their technical and supplemental standards were abysmally low. Anamorphic was a dirty word, and usually about seventy-five percent of the extras were recycled Troma ads in disguise. Thankfully they've been turning that around in recent years, Combat Shock: The Tromasterpiece Collection is another feather in their digital cap, with a strong audiovisual presentation and a host of informative extras.
I haven't seen the original Combat Shock DVD, but many Troma releases of that era looked to be sourced from VHS, with a nasty veneer of digital artifacting thrown in on top. All that is erased with this new release. Although it's a full-frame, shot on 16mm picture, Combat Shock looks about as good as you'd expect this kind of film to look. Yes, it's a little grainy and washed out, but that certainly doesn't hurt the viewing experience. The audio is similarly effective without being flashy. It's a stereo mix with little in the way of directional effects, but the sound design is very clear (in fact, sometimes too clear as the seams on the dubbing are very obvious in some scenes).
Troma didn't stop with a remastered audiovisual presentation. No, they pulled out all the stops with a two-disc release. The first big extra is the director's cut of the film, titled American Nightmares, which loses the credit sequence but adds almost 10 minutes of character development. It's an interesting companion piece to Combat Shock, but I can't say that I wanted more of Frankie's story. A commentary by director Buddy Giovinazzo and Jorg Buttgereit (the director of infamous cult flick Nekromantik) can also be found on Disc One, accompanying Combat Shock. Buddy does most of the talking, describing his thought process as well as the conception and production of the film. Although Buttgereit doesn't talk nearly as much, he makes an excellent foil for Giovinazzo.
The two also appear together on Disc Two in an interview at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival. In addition to that interview, we get talks with star Rick Giovinazzo, as well as several more with Buddy. There's also a look back at the film by other low-budget luminaries like William Lustig and John McNaughton in the documentary Post-Traumatic: An American Nightmare. Continuing the focus on Buddy, we get five short films from his early period. We also get to return to the locations used in the film, and many of them are surprisingly unchanged. Finally, the disc rounds out with the film's original theatrical trailer.
In many ways the extras were quite a bit more interesting than the film they accompany. Buddy Giovinazzo is a smart guy and Combat Shock is an amazing low-budget accomplishment. Hearing about its production and seeing its effect on other directors were much more engrossing than the film.
Ultimately, I can only recommend the film to the serious student of the history of low-budget filmmaking. Combat Shock is fascinating as an historical oddity, but as a viewing experience it comes up a little short. The extras on this disc, however, are sure to interest anyone with a passing interest in the low-budget filmmaking of the Eighties, which gave birth to a number of classic gore films. Although Combat Shock may not be a classic, its production provided a template that others could follow.
Combat Shock is guilty of not shocking, while Troma is acquitted for a fantastic DVD set for fans of the film and filmmaking alike.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Theatrical Release and Director's Cut